Volunteering at the Jaguar Rescue Center
In Costa Rica I fell in love, deeply in love. His name was Connan and he had the most amazing golden-brown eyes: they seemed to look straight into my soul. I was tempted to run away with Connan but, alas, he was a two-fingered sloth so he can’t “run”. But I will always remember the days I spent with him at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica.
After enjoying a lovely Christmas holiday with our friends Chris and Gayle and many days sampling the various beaches of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (developing the deepest tans each of us has had in probably decades), we eventually abandoned our lazy, rum-swilling ways^ and went to work for two weeks as volunteers at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Playa Chiquita, Costa Rica, a center that aims to rescue, rehabilitate, and return injured, orphaned, or mistreated wild animals to their natural habitat.
Life is but a dream
Now, anyone who knows me will immediately understand what an incredible experience this was. An. Absolute. Dream. Come. True. [Well, not all of it. Cue monkey-bite story.] I was surrounded by and helping monkeys! Sloths! Baby monkeys! Baby sloths! Kinkajous! Toucans! Parrots! Owls! Snakes! Ok….maybe I wasn’t so thrilled about the snakes, but we volunteers didn’t get (have) to work with them anyway. So yeah….did I mention baby sloths?!
For the duration of our volunteer stint, Toby and I rented a little flat directly across the street from the Caribbean Sea. We also rented a couple of old-style beach cruiser bikes with baskets on the front with which to commute to and from our new place of work. The lifestyle we developed over the course of the two-week period was one that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else in the world.
- We awoke early each morning to the sound of birds and waves, ate breakfast, then hopped on our bikes to reach the center for 7:30am. The Caribbean Sea, to our left, escorted us on the commute.
- We next set to work (more below) for the day until approximately 3:30pm, at which point we got back on our bikes; the Caribbean Sea, now to our right, escorted us back to our flat.
- Once home, we would throw off all of our stinky, sweaty clothes, slide into our respective swimming cossies, and stroll over to the Caribbean Sea to take a dip and watch the surfers.
- After we were sufficiently cooled off and relaxed, we returned home to shower and prepare/eat dinner. ^One day we discovered cheap, tasty fruit daiquiris at a nearby party hostel called Rocking J’s and from that day forward a pre-dinner daiquiri was incorporated into our routine.
- After dinner, we would make our lunch for the following day, set upon reading for a bit, then go to bed in anticipation of the next morning’s early start.
Monkeys and sloths and birds, oh my!
So, what did we actually do at the Jaguar Rescue Center? Various and sundry. But mostly, volunteer work (unless you were a tour guide) was divided into three categories: monkeys, sloths, birds. So shortly after arrival each morning, the volunteers were assigned to one of these categories. Can you guess which were my favorites?
For volunteers not allocated to the monkey forest (which was Toby’s most frequent assignment), standard monkey duty involved working with the young monkeys in the enclosure until it was time for them to visit the forest. And as with all of the animal assignments, cleaning was the first order of the day. The new volunteer quickly discovers that monkeys produce a lot of poop. On the floor, on the walls, in their beds, on the climbing aparatus. So yeah, cleaning up poop was how the day started, continued, and ended.
Apart from being on poop patrol and setting out toys and breakfast (so they could make more poop), monkey volunteers tried to keep the monkeys entertained and comforted for the duration of the tour period. The Jaguar Rescue Center is the top “attraction” in Limon province and they are open to the public 6 days a week. A highlight for most visitors seems to be the opportunity to spend time in the monkey enclosure while the monkeys do their thing. For Julia, the White-faced Capuchin, that usually meant swinging from pillar to post and bouncing on and off of the visitors (sometimes quickly nipping some visitors en route or attempting to remove their accessories, e.g., hats, earrings, hair doohickies). For Shaki, one of the Spider Monkeys, that meant swinging to and fro at the top of the enclosure, occasionally finding a male human visitor with whom he could flirt (which involved distinct facial expressions, kissing noises and twirls and somersaults). The two young (Mantled) Howler Monkeys‘ preferred activity was emulating an article of clothing: monkey volunteers could often be seen wearing a howler as a hat or a scarf, as they seemed to prefer cuddling to anything else.
For the duration of the tours, volunteers in the monkey enclosures did their best to maintain some sense of order (don’t let Julia nip people, don’t let monkeys escape when visitors enter/exit the enclosure, don’t let the monkeys fight) and, of course, keep the poo at bay. Both jobs were comparable to that of Sisyphus. And all the while volunteers would do this while wearing a monkey and a smile.
By the end of the tour period, I was exhausted. And the monkeys too were ready for some down-time in the forest, away from the prying eyes and reaching hands of the visitors. For me, the best times with the monkeys were before, between, and after the tours, when chaos was at a minimum (though never non-zero). Oh, and it was pretty fun to feed monkeys bottles of formula at the end of the day when they all returned to the enclosure from the forest. Though, monkeys being monkeys, formula time also involved a great deal of mayhem.
There is never a dull moment when you are working in close contact with monkeys! They are endlessly fascinating, always entertaining, and often unpredictable. After a day working in the monkey enclosure, the sloths were a great antidote.
Members of my family will not be surprised to learn that sloths are more my speed than are monkeys.
Sloth duty, like monkey duty, began with cleaning. There were two sloth enclosures, one of which contained older sloths and the other the youngsters (generally under 1.5 years). Once cleaning was done, volunteers then re-stocked the sloths’ food supply by stringing up fresh branches and leaves throughout each enclosure to mimic how sloths forage for food in the wild.
Since the Jaguar Rescue Center primarily rescues Two-toed (or more accurately, two-fingered) Sloths, the sloths’ diet was also supplemented on some days with fruits and vegetables. It was really fun to watch them scrape their plates clean – nom, nom, nom!
Their other favorite food was the hibiscus flower. Apparently, it is like sloth candy. I couldn’t help but give my favorite sloth “Connan”- who was extra furry and had a slightly triangle-shaped head (Toby wasn’t convinced he was actually a sloth) – a couple extra flowers on the days I went out to collect hibiscus branches.
Three-toed Sloths eat only leaves of just a few types of trees. For this reason, Three-toed Sloths generally don’t survive in captivity if held very long, so our understanding is that the Jaguar Rescue Center’s current policy is to release them back to the wild ASAP. During our two weeks volunteering, we saw just one three-toed sloth and s/he appeared to be there for one day only.
Besides cleaning and shoring up their food supply, the sloth volunteers’ main duty was to supervise the youngsters in the “sloth garden” during tour time. This involved taking the sloths out of their enclosure – carrying them with blankets, as their skin is sensitive and prone to infection and irritation – and placing them in small trees just outside, so they could practice their climbing and foraging (and sleeping) skills. It was sort of like sloth kindergarten.
A couple of the sloths preferred the comfort of their enclosure (where they could curl up in their blankies), however, so they would slowly make their way down the mini-trees and start heading back to the enclosure over ground. We would re-capture the escapees and place them back on a tree; but if they made a break for it a second or third time, we let them have their way. They are persistent little buggers.
Speaking of a persistent bugger, a sloth called “Yemanja” was a real escape artist, not to mention the most active sloth you could ever manage (which sounds like a contradiction in terms, I know). When she wasn’t trying to escape from the sloth garden, she would try to bite – in slow-motion, of course – one of the other sloths if s/he got in the way. Yemanja was clearly anxious to return to the wild, but because she had pins in her arms (following a surgery when she was attacked by a dog), she could not be released just yet. The funniest thing Yemanja did was to adhere to the “rules” of sloth kindergarten…but only barely. On the days when she had been given extra vegetables and was, thus, in a food coma, she could sometimes be found lying flat on the ground with only her legs wrapped around the trunk of a tree. It was as if she were saying “see, I’m ‘in’ a tree!”.
Sloth duty was fairly relaxing most of the time, except when it wasn’t. This was, in part, because we also looked after some young birds in the sloth garden who weren’t able to fly yet, which was all fine and well except that the free-roaming Chestnut-mandibled Toucan named “Touci Touci” wanted to eat our small, feathered charges. So every once in a while a perfect storm of events would converge: Yemanja would make an escape attempt and Touci-Touci would spot his opportunity to go after the small dove when the volunteer had dashed to retrieve Yemanja. And just at this moment a group of visitors would arrive to visit the sloth garden. I am pleased to report that – on my watch – Touci-Touci never got a hold of the small dove and Yemanja never escaped the sloth garden; though there were a couple of close calls.
I truly fell in love with the sloths: their expressions, their movements, their eyes, their piggy noses, their fur…. Every morning when the animal duties were assigned, I was thinking to myself “sloths, sloths, sloths!” And it is possible that I actually said it aloud once or twice as well. Toby teases me that the cuteness of certain animals just about causes my head to explode. Well, my head was certainly near-exploding every time I worked with the sloths. As Agnes said, “[they’re] so fluffy I’m going to die!”.
Bird duty mainly involved cleaning and feeding. Many of the birds at the center were wild raptors or owls and the general approach to caring for them was “hands-off”. Still, it was an incredible experience to see these birds so close up. Most of them were wary of us – and rightly so – but one day a small (extremely cute) owl seemed intrigued by our activities: s/he came to the ground and watched our cleaning activities intently. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince her/him to take over my duties.
The center was also home to several Red-lored Parrots, most of whom were named a variant of “Molly”. There was “Molly”, “Super-Molly”, and “Mini-Molly”. It was quite the soap opera, because Super-Molly didn’t get along with Molly and Mini-Molly, so we frequently had to break up scraps between them. The “Mollys” were not hugely amenable to interaction with humans, but I did manage to become friends with a Blue-headed parrot by scratching its head and neck every time I walked by its perch.
Above I mentioned Touci-Touci, the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (the one who stalked the small birds in the sloth garden). He was a real character. He came to the center because he was missing part of one foot (I can’t now recall why/how) and decided that life at the center was too cushy to leave. Though he lived in an enclosure at night, he was free to roam the sanctuary during the day. In fact, he could fly away at any time if he so wanted. But he preferred to stay close to a reliable source of food and the enticing feet of the volunteers. You see, Touci-Touci had a bit of a shoe fetish. When we volunteers would sit at the bench to eat our lunch, we had to watch out for Touci-Touci, as he liked to make sudden lunges at our footwear. I couldn’t deduce whether he was more a sandal-man or a boot-man; he seemed to like (or maybe hate?) them all equally. I swear I could actually see Touci-Touci “think” and it was absolutely fascinating. He was always sizing situations and people up and planning his next attack. You had to love him even though he was a bit of a devil.
Another favorite of the staff was a Blue-grey Tanager named “Pollencio”. For such a tiny bird, he sure contained a lot of attitude. He was free to fly around the center during the day and would use your head as a landing strip. Or he might decide that he wanted your lunch, so he would swoop in out of nowhere and grab a piece of your sandwich just as you were putting it in your mouth. One day I brought leftover pasta for lunch in a tupperware container and was just about to take a bite when he landed smack-dab in the middle of the pasta container. He was smart too: he made sure that the woman in charge of the kitchen (i.e., the person responsible for making all of the animals’ food) fell in love with him. He usually could be found within eyeshot of the kitchen.
The Jaguar Rescue Center rehabilitates and provides sanctuary to other species as well, including White-tailed Deer (which are relatively rare in Costa Rica), a Margay (a beautiful wildcat), Kinkajous (one of whom was blind and the other its best friend), a baby Tamandua (a type of anteater), a Spectacled Caiman, and even a Rhinoceros Beetle (aka “Hercules” beetle because of its size and tremendous strength).
Two weeks in paradise
Our two weeks volunteering with wildlife on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica was an absolutely fantastic experience. Since we left we have recounted stories to each other about the animals we encountered and looked again and again at the photos and videos we took. And we have discussed the possibility of returning for a much longer stint. But South America and the rest of the world beckons! Still, when I look at pictures and videos of Connan my beloved two-toed-sloth and I reflect on the slower-but-full-and-meaningful life we developed in just two weeks, I am strongly tempted to chuck in the rest of our trip and plant myself in Costa Rica. Hhhhmmmmm…….